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Lebanon USDA Office on Chopping Block

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Lebanon, PA (Lancaster Farming, February 4, 2012):With Congress in a cost-cutting mood, the recent announcement that USDA was putting seven Pennsylvania Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices on a list of potential closures probably should not have come as a surprise.  But don't tell that to farmers in Lebanon County, who recently made their case as to why their local office should be taken off the list.

FSA officials have been holding public hearings in counties where the closures have been proposed.  The closings are part of an overall plan by USDA to cut 259 offices nationwide, 131 of which are FSA offices.  Seven FSA offices in Pennsylvania are on the list. Meetings were held this week in McConnellsburg, Fulton County; Burnham, Mifflin County; New Bloomfield, Perry County; and Holidaysburg, Blair County.

Lebanon's meeting was held on Thursday last week inside the county's ag center, which also houses the county's conservation district, Cooperative Extension and other offices.  The meeting drew a large crowd of farmers, businesspeople and local politicians, who questioned the reasoning behind Lebanon being put on the list.  Bill Wehry, executive director of the state's FSA office, said the decision to close Lebanon along with the other offices comes as a result of the 2008 Farm Bill, which allows the government to close an FSA office if it is less than 20 miles away from another office and if it has two or fewer full-time employees.  Lebanon falls into both categories since, according to the government, it is less than 20 miles from the next closest office in Lancaster and there are only two full-time employees there.

Wehry said farmers would be able to go to any county of their choosing to apply for FSA programs, even though administratively, all paperwork would be handled through the Lancaster office.

But the government's reasoning failed to convince people that closing the office would be worth sending farmers to other counties to apply for federal programs run through FSA, including farm loans and disaster assistance.  The office's closing would save between $18,000 and $20,000 in rental costs, but the two employees would keep their jobs, although in another county.  Dennis Grumbine, CEO of the Lebanon Expo Center, said the rental savings aren't worth the time farmers would have to spend traveling in their cars to other counties.  "I question why we are sitting here today talking about $18,000," he said angrily. "I think there has to be some reasonable discussion out there about savings."

Bonnie Wenger of Wen-Crest Farms, which has 1,800 acres including 1,000 acres in the county, said it would cost her more time and money to travel somewhere else. Considering that she is the only one on the farm doing administrative work, it's time, she said, that she doesn't have.  "When you go to another county, you have to make appointments and stand in line. I think this is going to have a great impact on farmers," she said.

The fact that other factors, including number of farms and acreage in farming wasn't considered as part of the government's decision angered many in the crowd.  Of the seven county offices slated for closure, Lebanon has the most farms - 1,193 - and the second-most acreage in farming - 113,486 acres -behind only Perry County.  But the value of agricultural products sold in the county, $257 million, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, is more than double that of the next closest county, Perry, $105 million. And Lebanon ranks in the top 10 in many farm categories in the state, including poultry, dairy, grain and corn for silage.  "This is one of the leading ag counties in Pennsylvania," said John Bray, county Extension educator. "This one should be reconsidered."

Kevin Sellers, who owns a 45-acre dairy farm in the county, was also unhappy with the proposal.  "This is just one more headache we'll have to go through on top of all the other regulations and other things," he said.

Chuck Wertz, manager of the county's conservation district, said the closure makes no sense, considering the building it is currently in was built in the early 1990s to give farmers the opportunity to do all their business under one roof instead of traveling all over Lebanon city to other offices as was done in the past.

Wehry said comments on the proposed closures would be accepted through Monday, Feb. 6, and then forwarded on to officials in Washington, who will have 90 days to make a final decision.  He said the government has cut his state budget by nearly $2 million from 2010 to 2012. Staff positions have been cut from 228 to 203, with more cutbacks possible in the future.  He said his office is evaluating reassigning positions across the state to better account for where most farming is being done.  "Well, I think obviously producers and landowners and local officials are very compassionate and care very much about the agricultural community because it does mean a lot to the county's economy," he said. "All I can pledge to you is that our folks will do the best job they can."

Julie Holland, director of the Lebanon office, said between $2.5 million and $3.5 million is paid out of the office in program benefits to the county's farmers each year.  She said that while she won't lose her job, she might have to go farther to work since similar positions in neighboring counties are already full.  "I don't know where I'll go," she said, adding that she's been with FSA for 10 years now.

Still, she was surprised that so many farmers showed up in support of the Lebanon office.  "I was pleased at the turnout. Farmers are busy people. They've got a lot going on, and for them to take their time out to come out here and support us is really touching," Holland said.

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